A Muslim candidate for the Irvine City Council said Thursday that a councilman’s comment linking an Islamic civil rights group to terrorism has led to a death threat against him. Police said they are investigating.
Attorney Todd Gallinger, a Muslim convert, said a man called his office Tuesday, about three weeks after Councilman Steven Choi spoke at a forum and urged voters not to support a candidate who worked for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
The council, which has 35 offices in the United States and Canada, is “a dangerous Islamic organization,” Choi told 150 business leaders. Although he did not name Gallinger, the comment was clearly aimed at the 29-year-old lawyer, who has done legal work for the council’s Southern California chapter in Anaheim.
Gallinger said the caller thought he was talking to him but told an employee, “I want to cut off your head just like all the other Muslims deserve.”
“It’s clear that the person was motivated by the political attacks against me by my opponent,” Gallinger said.
Police spokesman Rick Handfield confirmed Thursday that the department is investigating the alleged threat.
On Thursday, Choi said he was surprised that someone would threaten Gallinger but did not believe it was inspired by his remarks at the Sept. 19 forum. Gallinger earlier that month had been interviewed about his association with the council on a KUCI-FM radio show.
“It’s a ridiculous question,” Choi said when asked if the caller was acting because of his comments. “Am I responsible for someone else making a threat to him? No. This is not my intent at all.”
He said the media had “escalated the problem” by publishing his remarks, which he said were directed at the council and not individual Muslims.
Last month, retired Irvine Police Lt. Patrick A. Rodgers, who is also running for a seat on the council, sent an e-mail to reporters describing himself as “a conservative American red, white and blue thru and thru,” and invited them to investigate Gallinger. Rodgers called his opponent “at best a terrorist group sympathizer.”
And a recent campaign mailer addressed to “Irvine Republicans” accused Gallinger and other Democratic candidates for mayor and City Council of “touting” the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which it described as “a group with terrorist ties.”
The group’s leaders have consistently denied allegations that they support Islamic extremists and have condemned the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
While denouncing the alleged threat as “extremist,” Rodgers defended his and Choi’s comments as a way to inform voters.
“If you work for a terrorist-backed organization, are you not a sympathizer?” he asked.
Gallinger is not the first candidate in Orange County to be attacked for supporting the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Bill Dalati, a Muslim and moderate Republican who ran for Anaheim City Council in 2006, was denounced by former GOP state party Chairman Shawn Steel as anti-American and a “Manchurian candidate.”
Dalati, who lost, said at the time, “It’s clear that my faith and heritage are the reason they don’t want me around.”
Critics have accused the council, the largest Islamic civil rights organization in the U.S., of having ties to terrorism, but the group has never been charged. In 2004, the council was one of 300 Islamic groups and individuals listed as unindicted co-conspirators in the trial of five officials of the Holy Land Foundation, an Islamic charity accused of funding terrorist groups in the Mideast.
Council officials strongly objected to being named in the case and accused the Justice Department of using “McCarthyite tactics” to smear the group. Its local chapter meets regularly with the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to improve relations between police and the Muslim community, said Executive Director Hussam Ayloush.
He said the council is working with law enforcement “to strengthen the war against terrorism.”
Ayloush sent a letter to Choi asking for a written apology and a meeting. Choi’s remarks about the council were “insulting and false” and “tantamount to public defamation,” Ayloush said.
Choi said he ignored the letter and will not apologize because he did not say anything wrong.